Allard: Dig Deeper

Statistics can lead us to incorrect assumptions about gender discrimination.

by Sydney Allard | 3/1/18 12:30am

A study published by Rutgers University found that until 2008, 97 percent of scholars who published academic op-eds in The Wall Street Journal and 82 percent in The New York Times were men. A byline survey conducted by Taryn Yaeger of The OpEd Project found that between Sept. 15 and Dec. 7, 2011, “women wrote 20 percent of op-eds in the nation’s leading newspapers — The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal.” Feminist news sources were quick to publish articles berating The Journal and The Times for being sexist and discriminatory publications.

These articles may have misidentified the problem. The issue may not be that newspapers are deliberately selecting op-eds written almost exclusively by men. The real problem may be that women do not submit op-eds with anywhere near the frequency that men do. In 2012, Sue Horton, the op-ed and Sunday opinion editor at the Los Angeles Times recalled that out of more than 100 op-ed submissions she received daily, an overwhelming majority were authored by men.

This example highlights the importance of reading data critically. If people assumed that the issue was rooted in the sexism of newspaper editors, they would look to solve it by hiring new editors or training editors to counteract their own sexist biases. But these solutions could miss the point. The problem could come from somewhere else entirely — women may not believe that their opinions are worth sharing to the extent that men do. This would be the real issue to address. If people stop at a surface-level reaction to the shocking statistic, they can miss the deeper implications.

Most students who are even minimally engaged with news have likely heard the official statistic that women earn around 79 cents for every dollar men earn. This statistic is distressing and ubiquitous. But it is also entirely too simplistic to capture the nuance of the problem. The implication is that this disparity in earnings comes from wage discrimination. Therefore, employers and corporations are being called upon to change their practices. Again, this solution does not address the real issue.

Professor Claudia Goldin of Harvard University researches the gender pay gap. She has identified a number of factors that explain why women are earning less per hour than men do. Discrimination is not one.

Occupational segregation explains a significant portion of the pay gap. For example, certain medical fields are male-dominated while nursing is female-dominated, and doctors are paid more on average than nurses. But the vast majority of the pay gap — 75 percent of it — comes from pay differences within the same profession.

The bulk of the difference seems to come from the choices men and women make regarding the type of environment in which they prefer to work. In general, women value what Goldin calls “temporal flexibility.” This means that women tend to prefer jobs in which they can choose their own hours — even if they work for the same amount of time, they like to work when it is most convenient for them. But jobs that offer temporal flexibility are costly, even within the same profession.

For example, according to Goldin, women often leave large law firms to work at smaller firms or as corporate lawyers, since corporate law tends to be more accommodating of a flexible schedule. And corporate lawyers at small firms, in general, earn less than lawyers at larger firms. In census data inputs, a lawyer is a lawyer and a professor is a professor, so all the difference in wages between men and women within the same field look, at first glance, like discrimination. But further investigation shows that women are choosing to work at small colleges and more flexible law firms. Jobs that offer the temporal flexibility that women tend to seek also pay less in general. That’s not discrimination. It is a choice.

The real issue here is why women are choosing jobs where they have flexible hours, whereas men are choosing the jobs that pay more. Herein lies the actual gender-based problem. Women, even those without children, tend to take on more caregiving roles than men do. They more often care for children and sick parents and therefore value being able to work when it is convenient and being able to care for their families when they are needed.

Here, believing that women make 79 cents to a man’s dollar could lead to missing the point entirely. It is not hiring practices that people need to reconsider, it is women’s role in the home and within the family. It has to do with whether people value temporal flexibility as much as they value that 23 percent difference in wages.

Being able to think about data and to pick apart statistics is crucial. If people do not understand where economic disparities come from, they cannot effectively address them. It is a reader’s duty to think critically about the information presented, even when statistics are cited. More importantly though, it is everyone’s duty to create an environment where people welcome challenges to their assumptions. If people label those who counter claims about the gender pay gap as sexist, prevent them from speaking or shame them for having a different perspective, they miss out on what could be valuable insight. To create real change, people need to know where to start.